Welcome to the world of children's commercial television, where kids are viewed as "wallets with pigtails," and children's shows are created as convenient vehicles for selling sugary cereals, plastic toys, and all manner of tie-ins from shampoo to soda. But even in this cutthroat business there are limits, as when popular kids' show host "Rainbow Randolph" (Robin Williams) gets busted for corruption. In the wake of a scandal, the network is at its wits' end trying to find a replacement who's actually honest and decent. Enter Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton). Creator of Smoochy the Rhino, he's as squeaky-clean as can be, and seems to be just the sort of naive fool who can be easily manipulated for the profit of those pulling the strings backstage. But things don't go according to plan, when "Smoochy" turns out to be a genuine altruist and when disgraced "Rainbow Randolph" starts plotting to get even.
Death to Smoochy left me extremely unsatisfied. Most movies have good points and bad points, but Death to Smoochy falls into the peculiar category of having its good points be very good and its bad points be very bad. The result is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of a movie that I alternately really enjoyed and really disliked.
Edward Norton pulls off a great performance as the innocent, optimistic Smoochy: he's clearly a dreamer, yet he also makes sense as a character that the viewers understand in greater depth as the film develops. I can't say the same for his opposite number in the film, Robin Williams. As Rainbow Randolph, Williams goes so far over the top that the ground is lost to view. From the very beginning, Williams' performance strikes a false note: it's strained and uncomfortable, never seeming to hit a chord that will connect his character to the audience.
That's not to say that the Smoochy half of the film is realistic: far from it. But it's a gentle, fantastic non-realism, like a fairy tale, very similar in tone to The Hudsucker Proxy. Norton's character is even quite similar to Tim Robbins' character in The Hudsucker Proxy: a dreamer with a heart of gold, caught up and manipulated in the schemes of more cynical characters. If Death to Smoochy had stuck with this general tone, it would have been a truly outstanding film.
Unfortunately, the "Smoochy" portion of the film is only part of the total package. The rest of the film, far from being as charming as the Smoochy portion, is downright unpleasant. In addition to Williams' constant shouting, grimacing, snarling, and posturing, we get a lot of pointless violence and general brutality, from beatings, smashed furniture, and an attempted grisly suicide all the way to actual murder being committed. The film starts out as a gentle satire on children's television and consumerism, but the level of casual violence in it poisons the overall tenor of the story. Director Danny DeVito may have intended to give Death to Smoochy a sharper satiric bite, an "edge," by adding darker elements to the story, as he did in The War of the Roses, which shows a very similar trend of adding progressively more violent and disturbing elements to the story until everything collapses in on itself. Now, I like The War of the Roses a good deal, but the dark element in that film is already borderline over-the-edge. In Death to Smoochy, the darker elements are completely out of place, and their effect is to disrupt the potential for the film to work on a different and more successful level.
This fundamental incoherence in the story's tone is a true shame, given that the film itself is extremely well-crafted. The imaginative cinematography in particular adds a tremendous amount to the effect of the film overall: from shots taken at unconventional angles to time-lapse photography, Death to Smoochy is always polished and visually interesting.
Death to Smoochy appears in an excellent widescreen anamorphic transfer, at its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The image is clean, appearing free of noise or print flaws of any kind, and contrast is always excellent as well. Since the film makes a great deal of use of color, especially bright primary colors, I am pleased to note that the transfer holds up very well in that regard: all the colors are exactly as bright and vibrant as they're supposed to be, while also looking natural. The one fault in the transfer, preventing it from being truly outstanding, is the presence of a moderate level of edge enhancement.
Obviously, make sure to pick up the widescreen edition of the film, to get the full image as presented in theaters, rather than the pan-and-scanned "fullscreen" edition.
The Dolby 5.1 track of Death to Smoochy does its job quite well. There's not a lot of use of specific surround effects, but the overall ambiance is fairly immersive. Dialogue and music are well-balanced and pleasing to the ear, and the sound is always natural-sounding even at the louder end of the scale.
If you like the film, the special features included on the disc should be pleasing. The main piece is a full-length audio commentary track from director DeVito and director of photography Anastas Michos. There's also a selection of bloopers, a seven-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, some additional scenes, and a selection of miscellaneous production, design, and behind-the-scenes photos.
I'm very much of two minds about Death to Smoochy. The Edward Norton half of the film is a funny, creative story; the Robin Williams half of the film is a distasteful failure. If you've liked Edward Norton in other films, it's probably worth getting Death to Smoochy as a rental, but it's too much of a mixed bag to get a full recommendation.